My last posting in Romanian was viewed by over 30.000 people. This is not just a translation as it includes a few other things. I use the term Gypsy in order to make a point. I would normally use Roma.
I’m not an important person. Not a famous writer, nor a celebrity. I have no links with powerful politicians, I’m not rich, and I could list many other reasons why I should not have been invited to speak at the many conferences and events where I was a speaker. I stood next to, and spoke with, Nobel Prize winners, amazing intellectuals, world leaders. Did I deserve those opportunities?
Mostly no, I did not.
So why did it happen to me?
Because I am a Gypsy. It looks good to have Gypsies taking part in important meetings nowadays. It makes the organisers, the country or the EU look more inclusive, to have some like me in their big meetings.
This is probably not the only reason.
Some of the honors that have happened to me were because of the Aspen Institute. They often recommended me.
With Aspen it started the same – the token Gypsy guy. Aspen Institute Romania was under pressure from Aspen Institute USA to get some Roma involved in their activities. Romania has a poor image when it comes to racism against Gypsies. So they sent a Gypsy – me – to the Aspen training camp at Wye in the US.
The first day was funny. We had to introduce each other. Name, university, place of work. Harvard – Microsoft, Harvard – Bridgespan, Princeton – CIA, Cambridge- Director of Kennedy Foundation, Harvard- IBM, MIT- other big shot, Columbia…I said. University of Craiova .They asked me if it was Ivy League. “Daewoo league” I said (the only thing I thought Craiova might be famous for – at that time Daewoo had a factory there).
Aspen Institute was a turning point for me. I was challenged by a brilliant right-wing Chinese participant (Harvard). He thought that philosophical discussions about the good society worked only for “us – the wealthy, well-educated and with full stomachs”. I felt like asking who were the “us” – the two of us were alone in the room, and I knew for sure I wasn’t part of the “us” he was talking about. I beat him convincingly at ping-pong… so I thought that I could demolish my own stereotype that the Chinese excel at ping-pong, why not try to prove him wrong also about the “good society” thing. I made a bet. When I came back to Romania I started to work in the ghetto, to try to see if the principles of good society have some use there too.
Do I have some other talents?
I am almost tone deaf, I can’t read the future, and I am completely unable to dance. I’m no horse whisperer either, despite the fact one of my uncles did steal horses. I am not a “free spirit” and. I suck when it comes to romance. Not even one of the many gifts the stereotypical Gypsy is supposed to have…
What do I think is my biggest talent?
The ability to fail.
I failed many, many times. I failed in almost everything you can imagine – over and over again. I am exceptional at collecting failures.
My mother grew up in a mud hut in a Roma village that even nowadays has no electricity or running water. She decided to marry a Romanian man, thinking she could rise up in society that way. For him, she was the last choice: he already had two children and everybody knew he was an alcoholic.
My mother was great with all of us. She worked really hard and helped all of us as much as she could. She was generous with people. She tried really, really hard to be respected and accepted. But she failed. We were never Romanians; we were always the Gypsy and the son of the Gypsy.
I remember failures from very early.
When we moved to Craiova the children did not really want to play with me. They called me a “lice-infested Gypsy”. I never had lice. My mother washed us with gasoline. Every single week. She also washed the floors and the furniture with gasoline at least twice a week. She thought it made them shine. We never allowed people to smoke in the house, not for health reasons but because we were afraid of starting a fire.
At school, I thought I was the smartest kid in my class. However, I convincingly lost the first elections (in second grade) to be one of two flag-holders (a position that came after the class president, the three vice-presidents and the guy responsible for the plants).
In fourth grade I was elected class president. I was happy for exactly two hours. During a break I heard my teacher saying to another teacher: “The idiots in my class voted for that stinky gypsy instead of the daughter of the university professor Xulescu.”
We failed to adapt to the culture of our apartment building.
Because we were poor, my mother decided to raise chickens. We started a small chicken farm in front of the apartment building – 10 meters from it. We had a rooster – the loudest and most obnoxious bird I’ve ever known. We built a shack where we smoked pig meat – the cheapest way to preserve food for the winter. My mother made soap out of fat scraps in a big pot on a fire in front of the building. In case you don’t know, all these things are normal in a Romanian village – but no in front of an urban apartment block in a Romanian city. We did not set-up a tent, but I guess our neighbours expected us to, as they most likely expected the carts and horses to come one day – and hopefully to take us away with them.
I remember the neighbour upstairs – he would loudly invoke all kind of saints, mass murderers and the rooster together with the “fucking stinky gypsies” downstairs in his morning prayers. It turned out he was in fact a truly kind guy.
My older half-brother was not much help either in this.
He was around 15 when it happened. I came home from school and I heard mother yelling “where did you get these clothes? Where the hell did you get the money for these clothes?” I entered the room and saw a pile of second-hand clothes in the middle of the room. My mother was angry and flustered – looking intently at my brother, who stared back and yelled: “I stole them! You know we never have fucking anything, you never buy me anything… I have to wear dad’s old shirts.”
My mother slapped him hard. “YOU cannot steal – we are the fucking stinky Gypsies, remember– what the hell is wrong with you?” She dragged him around the entire apartment block with the clothes draped over him and a big sign around his neck on which was written THIEF. Of course, my father was drunk. Imagine how popular I was.
My first try to bring a girl home was another good experience.
My mother opened the door. She looked her usual – a Gypsy woman. The girl froze. The dialogue was rather interesting.
“Come in!” I said.
“This isn’t your home!”
“Sure it is – I come here everyday.”
“No, this is impossible – who is she?” My mother was staring at us.
“My mother – who do you think she is?”
“That can’t be your mother!”
“I’m quite sure I know who my mother is…I might be confused about lots of things but I know my own mother.”
“Are you serious? This isn’t one of your silly jokes? You’re really a Gypsy like they say?
“Sure I am – what did you think, I was a Swede in disguise?”
“I can’t go inside – I can’t be with a Gypsy.”
During the last year of high-school, during May, when it was hot outside and hot in the gym, I was playing basketball. I was sweaty like crazy. I realised that I was late, so I ran up to class. The electronics teacher hated Gypsies and he would never miss a chance to pick on me. I was a few minutes late when I entered. I apologised for being late and I walked past him on my way to my desk. He exploded:
“You stink – how do you dare to come late to my class?”
Talking to the class:
“Do you know what a stinky Gypsy smells like? Like this one over here – come and smell him.
The class was stunned. He yelled to make them move.
“I told you to come and smell him. Damian (talking to the kid closest to him), you come first.”
He made the entire class come and smell me. Some made disgusted faces – my sweat is no roses.
I felt like a medium-built human-size shit. I never felt a bigger shame. I was in love with one of the girls in my class
So yes – I failed. I went through embarrassment after embarrassment. I failed in getting jobs I was well qualified for. I made a fool of myself with interventions that were out of place. I said and wrote idiotic things. I failed in some of my most important personal relationships.
But this is just part of the story.
My mother remains the Gypsy woman in the apartment building, but she is also the most loved one. She is in the middle of any big cooking project in the building. For years she made and gave soap to everybody around her. We ended up smoking pig meat for half of the people in our apartment building. She is still a compulsive cleaner.
I changed the lives of more that a hundred children in one of the worst ghettos in Bucharest. I met some of my childhood, and adult, idols – Michael Jordan, Michael Johnson, Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair, George Soros and many others. I took part in some of the most intellectually rich events – Aspen Seminars, Forum 2000. I travelled the world and I worked for some of the best companies in the world. I do what I want and I love what I do. I am friends with and train with some of the best- known football and basketball players in Romania. I convince them to help me with my work in the ghetto.
I’ve brought an EU Commissioner, ministers, tens of Members of the European Parliament and hundreds of very important people to see what I’m doing in the ghetto. I started an organization that won some very important prizes.
Are these recognitions very important to me? Not really.
So what is important?
That I have not managed to change the way the European Commission continues to waste public money on Roma social inclusion, despite overwhelming proof that they do waste money.
That despite moderating seminars for Aspen Institute Romania – and each year I meet unbelievably smart, kind, and generous young leaders – we still have not managed to produce a significant change in Romania.
That I have not brought about a significant change in life in Roma communities or made a significant contribution to curbing anti-Gypsyism.
That I haven’t managed to make our intervention in the ghetto self-sustainable, and overall our impact is still insignificant compared to the many and enormous problems in the ghetto.
YET. I have not managed to do these things YET.
I am working on all of them. Because I failed so many times that I learned that failures are the most important part of success. Because it doesn’t matter how hard I fail, how much I embarrass myself, as long as I learn from it and try harder or differently. I still believe that at the end of the day, if I try hard enough I will succeed, even if not fully.
So I keep trying.